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Three Cities: Seeking hope in the Anthropocene
by Rod Oram (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by John Lang

BWB7760_Text_Three Cities_hi Res_0We’ve all heard of Beijing, London and Chicago—the three cities Rod Oram scaffolds his latest environmental insights upon—but we’ve not all heard of the Anthropocene; at least not yet. If the term is still slippery, you have an excuse, but not for much longer.

The BWB text, Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene takes readers for a whirlwind trip around the globe searching for the stirrings of something resembling hope, but unsurprisingly, not hope itself.

The Anthropocene epoch, superficially synonymous with climate change, but more accurately associated with the breadth of change being carved out on the natural world by humans, has only just begun, says the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA). A mere month ago, the WGA voted in favour of formally recommending (to the International Geological Congress) that the Anthropocene qualifies to succeed the 11,700 year-old Holocene epoch.

Oram’s text begins where it should, in Beijing, where the perils of climate change and its hopeful solutions are reacting with such unpredictability, even the most ardent experts can’t foresee the results.

China has admirably, if indignantly, taken to the problem of climate change of late, yet the oxymoron that is ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’ (sustainable development) has never been better embodied than within its borders. Bringing 300 million people out of poverty has had its drawbacks. Armed with a (coal) burning desire to spearhead the international energy transition, mostly born of necessity but with a likely pinch of pride, China plays out the ‘great contradiction’. Others can only gasp, or applaud. In 2015 alone, hundreds of new coal-fired power plants—the antithesis to combatting climate change—were commissioned; at the same time, over one hundred billion dollars was invested in renewable electricity.

There are signs—everywhere—however, that things are unravelling: exports are slowing, society is ageing, infrastructure is idle, debt is mounting. But where there is struggle, there is, of course hope. Plans abound. A National New-Type Urbanization Plan and Integrated Reform Plan for Promoting Ecological Progress promise to pump trillions into ecology and the economy.

London was targeted by Oram for its depth of knowledge, youthful enthusiasm and business acumen. It didn’t disappoint. We meet many of its youngsters undeterred by the status quo and equally uncompromising about where it should go. Kate Raworth turns an economic principle into a doughnut (or vice versa) and ultimately into the foundations of a book (one that I’ll be reading) titled Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.

In an effort to extend intellectual boundaries, journalist Paul Mason is espousing a slightly radical, but seemingly rational set of leftist ideas, also for a book: Postcapitalism: A Guide to the Future (I’ve added it to the list as well). The young economist, Ben Dyson, draws a three-way relationship between banks, the financial crisis and the environment, stoically calling for the modernisation of the monetary system, or in his words ‘Positive Money’. Jeremy Leggett, of Carbon Tracker, cites a UBS forecast that by 2020, the related ‘trio’ of technologies (solar power, battery storage and electric vehicles) will generate investment returns for users of 6–7% a year. He reminds Oram, and us, of the history of innovation—‘incumbents always get rolled by insurgents’. Finally, we meet John Elkington, of Voltan, who observes, ‘Over the last four or five years, something quite profound has happened… A growing number of companies have become uneasily aware that this is no longer an agenda for freaks and weirdos and people on the edges.’

As a former columnist for London’s Financial Times, Oram is well placed to interpret these youthful stirrings. As he headed into Heathrow’s terminal, his hope levels had semi-replenished. Until he read about Volkswagen and its emissions testing on his former paper’s front page.

Before turning his attention to climate change policies and New Zealand, Oram couldn’t resist but take a mirror with him to Chicago. In 2014, it offered one of our brightest environmental start-ups, Lanza Tech, international opportunities that New Zealand just couldn’t match. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (back in 2013), Chicago ranked 2nd in the sustainable cities’ standings. Auckland was 42nd. Chicago was also ‘creating more public transport options, greening the wastewater system, doing much more recycling, and building the largest city-bike-share scheme in the US to name but a few of the one hundred goals in the city’s sustainability plan’.

Oram talks briefly with Sean Simpson, Lanza Tech’s chief scientific officer. Sean has mixed emotions about leaving New Zealand for Chicago. He sees New Zealand as a fertile breeding ground for creative technologies, but at the same time, expresses general disappointment at the lack of government support for clean technology enterprises like theirs. With backers like Stephen Tindall, as well as American, Chinese and Malaysian venture capitalists already sold on their idea—having raised US$200 million from them—Lanza Tech weren’t worried about themselves, they were worried about others back home.

Oram eventually turns his attention back to New Zealand. Revealing any of that would be a waste though. As Max Muller famously said, ‘He who knows one, knows none’. Oram, by getting us to know another three places (albeit cities), gets us to know the one before we even arrive back at its shores.